Why do women complain of vaginal discharge? A population survey of infectious and pyschosocial risk factors in a South Asian community

Int J Epidemiol. 2005 Aug;34(4):853-62. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyi072. Epub 2005 Apr 15.


Background: Vaginal discharge is a common complaint, particularly among women in Asia. Although presumed to be caused by reproductive tract infections (RTIs), the association between the complaint and the presence of RTIs is weak. This study aimed to investigate the risk factors of the complaint of vaginal discharge.

Methods: We conducted a community-based survey of 3000 women aged 18-50 years, randomly sampled from a population in Goa, India. Women who gave informed consent were invited to participate in a structured interview, which elicited data on the primary outcome (the experience of current abnormal vaginal discharge) and psychosocial exposures: gender adversity; symptoms of somatoform disorders; and common mental disorders (CMD). All women were required to provide vaginal and/or urine samples for diagnosis of RTIs using gold standard laboratory tests. Risk factors were analysed using logistic regression with the binary outcome of the complaint of vaginal discharge.

Results: Of the 2494 women (83%) who agreed to participate, 14.5% complained of having an abnormal vaginal discharge. Stress was the most common causal attribution for the complaint. The final multivariate model found that high scores for CMD (OR 2.16, 1.4-3.2) and somatoform disorders (6.23, 4.0-9.7) and the use of an intrauterine contraceptive device (1.86, 1.0-3.4) were independently associated with the complaint. Low literacy (0.54, 0.4-0.8) and age >40 years (0.29, 0.2-0.4) were associated with a reduced risk. RTI were not associated with the complaint (1.24, 0.9-1.6).

Conclusions: Psychosocial factors have the strongest association with the complaint of vaginal discharge. Syndromic management algorithms need refinement so that women with complaints that are non-infectious in aetiology are offered psychosocial interventions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / complications
  • Anxiety / epidemiology
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Depression / complications
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Humans
  • India / epidemiology
  • Intrauterine Devices
  • Middle Aged
  • Population Surveillance
  • Registries
  • Risk Factors
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • Somatoform Disorders / epidemiology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Vaginal Discharge / epidemiology
  • Vaginal Discharge / microbiology*
  • Vaginal Discharge / psychology*
  • Women / psychology*